Some of the accused privates of the 13th Battalion Parachute Regiment in the Muar mutiny case.
In May 1946, at the Muar Camp in Malaya, over 250 privates refused to obey orders and were later charged with mutiny. Three were acquitted, eight sentenced to five years penal servitude and the rest two years imprisonment.
The British in Southeast Asia were now extremely vulnerable to any threat to internal security which might demand the use of British or Indian troops. The Allied Land Forces South East Asia were now demoralized and potentially mutinous. Many had had a very long war, and the resultant mental strain was now a major problem. Military doctors had noted the effects of this as early as 1942. By 1945 there were around 100 full-time psychiatrists in the theatre who were running between forty and fifty psychiatric centres in India, Burma and Ceylon. The troops of ALFSEA appeared to be suffering from massive psychological dysfunction. Army doctors suggested that the ‘sudden change’ in stresses of many soldiers – and particularly of the staff officers deeply concerned with the planning and liberation of Malaya – was responsible for this. They reported that Indian troops were particularly at risk: many had been in continuous service for three and a half years, with no leave for two. There were cases of suicide on disembarking in a new theatre, with a hostile climate and no prospect of return to deal with domestic problems. In October 1945 there was a minor mutiny on HMS Northway in Singapore, when sailors left their dinner uneaten on mess tables, following what the enquiry called ‘a schoolboy grouse about food’. The men were particularly aggrieved at having fish (herring in tomato sauce) for breakfast three times a week. But if this incident was relatively minor, it was one of a growing number, and it could not be attributed solely to inactivity. Across the theatre fraternization created a series of incidents, each relatively short lived, but increasingly connected. At the height of the crisis in Indonesia Mountbatten had seen the limits of what he could ask British and Indian troops to do. There was deep disillusion among British troops about the reconquest of Indonesia, and about their continued presence in Malaya. Soldiers attended political rallies and Malayan Democratic Union meetings, and much of the Malayan Communist Party’s library in Singapore was donated by servicemen. An ‘East and West Society’, begun as an Army Education Centre project, started actively to foster these links. At the time of the 29 January General Strike, there were reports in the leftist press that troops at Bukit Timah threatened to come out in support for the Malayan workers, and would refuse to put down the strike. This was perhaps wishful thinking, but at the same time a larger protest by British servicemen was already underway.
At the end of January there was a series of protests at Royal Air Force bases across the crescent. They involved perhaps fourteen stations and 50,000 men. It seems to have begun at Drigh Road, Karachi. The immediate case was poor food and living conditions, and a return to peacetime discipline, with all the kit inspections and parade in ‘best blue’ uniforms. But the underlying tension was the delay in demobilization. Men of the ‘forgotten armies’ were deeply worried about being disadvantaged in jobs or being denied places in higher education. In the petitions of the men, the use of the army in India and Indonesia was deplored, as it was seen as a central obstacle to demobilization. Men with a Labour or Communist Party background founded their own discussion groups and made contacts with the Indian Communist Party. When protests began, the ‘strike committees’ were run by men with trade-union experience; their news-sheets were run by conscripted journalists who had links with the local press. The incidents stretched across the widest arc of the British Middle East and Asia: from Gibraltar, Cairo and North Africa, to India, and through to Seletar, in Singapore, where more than 4,000 men were involved in the strike. It began with a meeting in the canteen, which was filled to capacity, on the evening of 26 January and the next day spread to Kallang aerodrome. The press reports and the incessant movement across the theatre through airbases created the sense of a connected protest across Asia. There was even some condoning of it by officers, who obstructed the enquiries into the events. Those at the forefront of the protests maintained that they were spontaneous, that their own leadership was unpremeditated and moderating. But the main figures, such as Arthur Attwood in Karachi and D. C. Brayford at Manipur, became the subject of high-profile trials. They were in correspondence with Tom Driberg, who engaged D. N. Pritt – then riding high as an independent MP – to defend them. But investigating officers felt the strikes were a communist conspiracy, ‘the work of an organisation which remained in the background and controlled both the Indian and the Middle East to suit its own ends’. This was the kind of charge the British were applying to Asian trade unionism in Malaya and Singapore.
By May 1946 the incidents spread to frontline troops. Men of the Parachute Regiment stationed at Muar in Malaya, recently returned from Java, protested at their living conditions. After a meeting in a canteen on 13 May, with the lights out, there was an assembly by the sea wall the next morning at which they refused to attend parade. They had been instructed to turn out clean, but it was impossible in the tropical mud, and there was insufficient water for washing. The men gathered in an angry mood and twice refused to obey the commanding officer’s orders to return to their companies: 258 men were taken into custody and brought to trial en masse at Kluang airfield on 12 August, where they had been detained. Some were brought in handcuffs, having slipped over the wire to buy cigarettes and necessities in the town. They termed it a strike, but were rebuked by the judge advocate: ‘The word “strike” is not in Army vocabulary,’ he said. ‘It is Mutiny or nothing else.’ Of the 258, 243 were sentenced to three or five years’ penal servitude (later commuted to two years’ hard labour), and discharged with ignominy. Their defence was that men had protested similarly elsewhere and had not been punished. There were questions in Parliament and public petitions in their support. Eventually, all convictions were quashed, due to irregularities in the trial. Churchill himself condemned the conduct of the court martial in the Commons: ‘I unhappily presided over the Army when there was a shoal of mutinies, and no one ever attempted to bring large masses of the rank and file to a mass trial.’ It was the British Army’s Red Fort Trials. To the military it was a ‘complete bombshell’. It seemed as if the new Labour government was capitulating to public opinion. The battalion was immediately despatched to a transit camp and posted out of Southeast Asia. Field Marshal Montgomery was compelled to write to all field commanders. ‘No criticism must be allowed against our new Secretary of State or against the Government… He handled the problem in a brave and determined manner.’ The commander of the Parachute Regiment, who had been in Java at the time of the ‘mutiny’, saw that it indicated a fundamental problem of peacetime operations. The local commander was a rugby international and a ‘real live wire’. But his troops were men who ‘had not the responsibilities of soldiers’. They were merely ‘civilians in uniform’: 80 per cent of those involved were aged eighteen to twenty-one, forty-five of whom had not seen active service, and included forty-seven out of fifty newly drafted from the UK.84 It was becoming dangerous to try to defend the empire with a conscript army.
Not all soldiers were so politicized. A special section of the Royal Army Medical Corps – the No. 1 Biological Research Section – distributed a questionnaire to British troops in 1946. Its results could not have been surprising to commanders, but they were nevertheless perturbing. Servicemen expressed their resentment of ‘wasting time, their sense of losing time’ – what the psychologists called ‘disuse atrophy’. The phrases that cropped up repeatedly were soldiers’ anger at ‘red tape’ and ‘bullshit’. The army struggled to interpret this latter term. The report stated that it ‘may be defined pedantically as “excessive insistence, in military administration, on the specious and showy, rather than on things really contributing to military efficiency”’. Encouraged by this, the authors of the survey expanded eloquently on what, for the serviceman, complaints at ‘messing around’, might mean:
Drafts of men roam about the country like droves of armed sheep, but more articulate – the Transit Camp, that slaughterhouse of hope, looming menacingly before them. All this fluidity gives an impression of administrative efficiency, so different from the stable, peaceful and well-oiled bureaucracy of Great Britain.
One of the symptoms of the collapse of morale, according to the army doctors, was the high rate of venereal disease. This was the era of Brian Aldiss’s ‘Horatio Stubbs’; a young man set loose in the ‘great whoring cities of the East’. The cabarets were now a huge industry. Dancing classes proliferated to train the ‘taxi-dancers’, who were often in debt for the cost of them and for the hire of their seats in the cabaret. In May the Penang Cabaret Girls Association was founded at the City Lights cabaret. A Miss Tseng Pi Chi spoke: ‘We are marching ahead in society… but although we are mere dancers we have our country behind us… We don’t want to be dancers all our lives; we want only to make a living from dancing. We are waiting till we shall be the equals of men when we shall quit dancing and seek other opportunities of making a living.’ There was a confrontation with the military over their plans to make standard the price of dance coupons. The behaviour of British troops continued to have a deep effect on locals. There was fighting in Penang when a British serviceman threw an ashtray at a Chinese boy, killing him. Civilians avoided the cabarets and girls walking with soldiers were shied with watermelon skins. In the eyes of a young Malay woman, British troops ‘were often drunk and disorderly, consorting openly with women of the streets… They flaunted their bad manners before the shocked eyes of the Asian population, and we winced at the filthy language we heard. Even to us, the new generation of Singaporeans, it was clear that these soldiers did not belong to the same world as their pre-war countrymen… The picture of the English gentleman was shattered.’
Eric Stokes, a British subaltern, wrote to his sister at the end of the war that, walking along a Calcutta street, he felt ‘rather like a Nazi officer must have felt walking along a Paris boulevard’. The hatred of the clerks and professional people for him was palpable. Whatever the politicians in London and the administrators in Delhi thought, most ordinary British soldiers and businessmen in India already knew that the game was up. In 1946 the British Raj in India died and its death lay heavily on the British in Burma and Malaya. The Raj’s obsequies were not finally said until August 1947, by which time more than a million Indians were doomed to perish in a frenzy of communal killing and many millions more had fled their homes. It was in 1946, however, that the underpinnings of British rule, which had survived even the Quit India movement of 1942 and the disillusionment of 1945, finally came apart. War’s end always brings crises. India’s huge war effort had left it exhausted. More than a million army personnel needed to be repatriated to their villages. Many of these men, particularly the officers, were convinced that self-rule should come immediately. The war had awakened them to politics. If, as they had been told, they were fighting in Southeast Asia for the self-determination of Burmese, Thais, Indonesians and others against Japanese rule, why should India not be free? If most of the Burmese villages they had seen had once had schools and clean water, why should not India’s? Economic hardship drove the point home. Inflation roared away, goods were scarce and military pay did not keep pace with prices. Simmering racial tensions damped down by fear during the war flared up. A younger generation of Indian officers and men would not now put up with casual racial abuse and disdain, especially from Johnny-come-lately British officers who had not fought through the war as they had done. In the Royal Indian Navy a full-scale mutiny broke out in February 1946, fuelled by a combination of racial tension and economic frustration. A white officer had apparently called an Indian subaltern a ‘black bastard’. The fleet went on strike off Bombay. Parties of men from the ships invaded the city centre carrying Congress flags and demanding independence. Local Congress volunteers joined them, and the police, already sullen and resentful because of their own lack of compensatory pay, seemed on the point of going over to the mutineers. Wavell acknowledged that the experience of the RAF strikes had encouraged the men.
The trouble quickly spread across the country with the Congress leadership now going for the kill. Tension mounted before the March provincial elections which Wavell had announced the previous autumn. Anti-British riots convulsed Calcutta, where Subhas Bose’s brother and old allies joined the communists in demonstrations of solidarity with the INA internees. Cars were burnt out. Areas such as leafy Park Street, which had been quiet even in 1942, were invaded by crowds of youths. Shop windows were smashed. When the British authorities released Sher Khan, a colonel in the INA, he received a nearly hysterical reception in Calcutta. Denizens of the august Bengal Club looked out from the veranda in dismay as he and other reprieved officers of the INA were paraded past in triumph. The white man’s izzat or charisma had finally evaporated. Arthur Dash, a senior Bengal civil servant, recorded that Britons and Anglo-Indians walking in Calcutta’s streets were waylaid and abused. A favourite game was to purloin their regimental or club ties and topis (pith helmets) in a sort of ritual humiliation. If they resisted, they were beaten up.